Paradise Lost: The Rise & Fall of Surfridge

As LAX and local residents dispute proposed runway expansions, another neighborhood on the fringe of the airport comes to mind—one that, sadly, no longer exists. Beginning in the 1960s, LAX growth slowly eclipsed an enclave of beautiful homes overlooking Dockweiler Beach in El Segundo, leaving behind the ghostly remains of a forgotten community. We revisit the Surfridge neighborhood more than 30 years after its demise with this cautionary tale of progress, heartbreak and
a faint a glimmer of hope.

"On down the coast lies Palisades Del Rey … where, legend says, pirate ships used to hide their booty and themselves for shelter from the fury of the sea and pursuing vessels. Palisades Del Rey is now a modern residence town unmindful of its stirring past.”
—National Motorist

The last remnants of Los Angeles’ most exclusive ghost town are about to disappear. However, the ghost town known as Surfridge is not home to dusty saloons and tumbleweed. It was, at its heyday, known for Mediterranean estates with opulent courtyards where you could hear the scratchy echo of the Charleston.

Currently, Surfridge is a fenced-off boneyard that overlooks Dockweiler Beach. You may have noticed it as you travel north along Imperial Highway. A few desolate streets and random lampposts remain, wearily marking this forgotten seaside community.

As the popularity of historical dramas on television proves, there is something captivating in uncovering the past. The history of Surfridge offers enough nostalgia and drama to fill several seasons.

The evolution of a community and its civil politics will engage Vegas fans. The scenic locations are as lavish as those in Boardwalk Empire. At the core of the narrative is a diverse array of characters to rival the ensemble of Downtown Abbey. Our cast includes the early stars of Hollywood, displaced homeowners and the El Segundo Blue Butterfly.

SEASON ONE: THE EARLY YEARS

At the turn of the century, Playa Del Rey (known then as Palisades Del Rey) was aptly named King’s Beach. A beautiful coastline, oil-rich soil and miles of unspoiled dunes made it a destination for real estate developers, oil diggers and tourists.

In 1921, the firm Dickinson & Gillespie purchased a three-mile stretch they would develop into Palisades Del Rey, Surfridge Estates, Del Rey Hills and Surfridge. They constructed homes modeled after a Spanish aesthetic with the sensibility of a high-end resort. Every home had a red tile roof and ornate tile work, and featured an exterior and interior layout to enhance each home’s particular view.

Real estate developer Fritz Burns, a mastermind behind the project, also imported palm trees to flank the entrance. It was an easy sell; the rich and famous flocked to Surfridge for a piece of paradise.

The seclusion of the developments appealed to actors and directors, and their presence added cachet to the neighborhood. Residents included William de Mille, Cecil B. DeMille, Charles Bickford and Mel Blanc. In the early days, actress Mae Murray built a mansion on the beach, where she held lavish parties that lasted for days.

It was a community that embodied the good life in every way. Decades before celebrities were spotted on the bluffs of Malibu, stars of the silver screen took retreat in the dunes above Dockweiler.

A neighboring area east of this playground was also attracting the spotlight. Mines Field, a 640-acre parcel of farmland, had become a venue for people to enjoy air races and shows that were popular in the ‘20s and ‘30s. These events drew large crowds.

Along with participants Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, attendees included Marion Davies, Will Rogers, Bill Boeing and Donald Douglas. It was an exciting moment in 1928 when the Los Angeles City Council selected Mines Field as the site of a new airport for the city, and the farmland was transformed into dirt landing strips.

 

SEASON TWO: THE PRICE OF PROGRESS

Surfridge flourished from the late ‘30s through the late ‘50s. Dickinson & Gillespie suffered as a result of the Great Depression and sold their interests to the bank. Fritz Burns lost his own mansion and lived in a tent on the beach until he rebuilt his fortune.

But the economic stability of wartime and post-war industry allowed families to purchase parcels of land and build their dream homes. According to resident, local history buff and author Duke Dukesherer, Surfridge was “the castle on the hillside.”

Dockweiler was a popular surf spot while he was growing up, and he recalls that beach-goers would inevitably gaze up at Surfridge. Everyone dreamed of living there.

Meanwhile, the airport grew, and the scope of its rapid evolution overwhelmed the surrounding communities. It remained a relatively sleepy spot until World War II, when it was used as a manufacturing area for military aircraft.

By the 1950s, the jet age was underway, as advances in technology revolutionized air travel. Planes became much larger and significantly louder. International and domestic air travel was booming. There was a steady flow of construction to accommodate additional terminals and parking lots.

By the 1960s, it was evident that the airport’s expansion had taken a traumatic toll on its neighbors. The noise of the new jumbo jets was deafening, and the air was filled with soot from the giant engines. Families complained that they had to limit their time outdoors, and some experienced respiratory difficulties.

The airport was aware of these concerns, yet they needed to expand, so the city of Los Angeles decided to purchase or condemn neighboring houses by an act of eminent domain. By 1961, the acquisition process, described by the airport as a measure for “noise abatement,” began.

The first phase, Playa Del Rey, started in 1965. The second phase, Playa Del Rey Island, got underway in 1970. And by 1981, the third phase, North Playa Del Rey, was still in process. Residents faced selling their property to the city or relocating their homes.

According to Duke Dukesherer, Surfridge homes were transplanted all over the city—from Long Beach to Palmdale. He had several family friends who sold early and made out well, but apparently this was not typical.

Some homeowners were able to get acceptable compensation, relocate their homes and receive reimbursement for moving expenses. However, as the years passed, the entire acquisition process became inconsistent and problematic. Property values fluctuated, vacated homes invited vandalism, and neighborhoods were physically and emotionally ripped apart.

Residents sued the city of Los Angeles in 1968, claiming that their property value had decreased due to airplane noise. Studies showed that the noise levels were dangerously high.

But without the environmental considerations and standards we now have in place, the homeowners were easily overlooked. Judge William Levit ruled that the noise was not “of a substantial nature” and that residents “must bear a certain amount of inconvenience, unpleasantness and noise as the cost of living in one of our modern cities.”

The appraisals themselves proved to be contentious. An unidentified spokesperson from the real estate agency retained for the acquisitions stated, “As a public agency, we had to pay market value and retained outside appraisers to be sure there was no bias involved. Of course, market values went sky high between the beginning of the program and the end, and some homeowners might disagree that they were given fair market values.”

That was the case, as residents later discovered that homes were rated against property standards from the city of South Gate and that homes without views were appraised at the same rate as homes with views. Ken Haggstrom, a Playa Del Rey realtor, stated that most homeowners sold at prices averaging $5,000 under market value (in 1968). He summed up the community ire: “A man shouldn’t have to go to court to get a fair price for his house.”

The tensions continued, especially for homeowners who remained and waited for the axe to fall. Those who were part of the later phases or chose to wait it out (when market value had dropped) suffered the most.

One resident who lived by a home that was slated for removal summed up the challenges of that scenario: The construction company parked their trucks so they blocked the view by day and ran noisy equipment during the evening hours. And houses that were to be relocated had to be transported quickly because of looting. Residents reported that airport workers and vandals were often seen driving through the neighborhood, helping themselves to stray lumber and discarded lighting fixtures.

Some homes were broken into; it was common for windows to be broken and appliances to be damaged or missing before moving crews arrived. Residents noted how lonely it was to be stranded in a vanishing community.

Many residents eventually viewed Surfridge as a bitter landmark they could not forget. There were accounts of marriages ending and homeowners who left the state in order to get the bad taste out of their mouths. They also bemoaned the lack of support from local officials, noting a profound sense of disappointment in how the project was handled by the city.

It was certainly a tragic end for the families that called Surfridge home and for many of the historic homes that were destroyed. The entire community was fenced off by the ‘80s and became what you see today. It has been described as a ghost town, an eyesore—and has always remained an enigma.

A small piece of Surfridge remained open to the public—a patch of the dunes where locals would watch the planes take off and land. But the airport closed it after 9/11. The final piece of Surfridge was officially lost at last.

 

A colorful map showing the residential development at its prime.

SEASON THREE: RETURN OF THE BUTTERFLIES

The saga of Surfridge has a positive ending, or rather, a new chapter. In 1986, the airport created the Dunes Restoration Plan to return the dunes to their original occupants, the El Segundo Blue Butterfly—the first insect designated as an endangered species in 1973. The butterflies survive on coastal buckwheat that grows on 200 of the 300 acres of the remaining undeveloped land adjacent to the airport.

Some residents view the attention to a butterfly preserve with skepticism; some want the remaining 100 acres to be open to the public. And developers once submitted plans for a nine-hole golf course to share the property.

Dr. Travis Longcore of The Urban Wildlands Group, a non-profit organization that works to protect native species and habitats in urban areas, was a key player, along with the California Coastal Commission, in monitoring the butterfly colony and the airport’s activity on the site. The Coastal Commission sued the airport when they learned they had planted non-native palms and plants on the site without a permit.

As part of the settlement, the airport proposed several projects to counteract the environmental damage that lay in its past. They will allot $3 million toward air quality studies, increased soundproofing for surrounding areas and research into alternative fuel development.

Dr. Longcore advocates a restoration of the remaining acreage as well, stating “The El Segundo dunes are incredible, because there are these unique species there that aren’t found anywhere else. It’s not just the butterflies. There are some rare plant species; there are some rare insect species. It’s a real ecological treasure. The whole 300 acres needs to be in conservation.”

Another project allows the airport to remove the remaining infrastructure of Surfridge and restore it to its native habitat. Robert Freeman, environmental manager at LAX, says that upon approval of their restoration plan and granting of a permit by the California Coastal Commission, they can finally remove the asphalt and prepare the soil for seeding.

They hope to begin this phase by April or May of this year. The prospect of opening the property to the public once again is not on the horizon; Freeman claims it is too problematic. He does hope that perhaps they can build a wall around the perimeter as a space for public art and surround it with a trail.

And what about those plans for a golf course? Freeman asserts, “We quickly determined that was not a good idea. That’s not going to happen.”

Surfridge, a glamorous neighborhood that once lured starlets and became a wasteland of so much heartache, will once again be a home. Without the presence of developers, the ghosts of wasting infrastructure and non-native plants encroaching on this unique habitat, we should all hope that the butterfly population will flourish and grow. That is the way to end a good historical drama marked by so much loss … with the promise of a new beginning. 

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